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What led to the Islamic State’s terrifying rise

Smoke rises after airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants near the Khazer checkpoint outside of the city of Irbil in northern Iraq on Aug. 8. The Iraqi air force has been carrying out strikes against the militants, and for the first time on Friday, U.S. warplanes directly targeted the extremist group, which controls large areas of Syria and Iraq. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)
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If the world needed a sign of how alarming the rise of the Islamic State is, the authorization of airstrikes by the United States on positions held by the jihadist fighters in Iraq was it.

The ever-cautious Obama administration has resisted calls for direct intervention in a range of conflicts in the region up till now. But the Islamic State's continued advance in northern Iraq — operating within a pseudo-state of its own that's larger than some European countries — and its campaign of slaughter of ethnic and religious minorities spurred the U.S. to action.

The "limited" intervention is intended to protect American personnel in Iraqi Kurdistan and prevent "the systemic destruction of the entire Yazidi people," according to President Obama, referring to the ancient religious sect in the Islamic State's crosshairs during an address delivered Thursday night.

But how did the Islamic State become such a threat? Here is what explains its extraordinary rise.

The Islamic State is more effective than al-Qaeda

The group began as an offshoot of al-Qaeda at the height of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq in 2006. It was subdued by an American counterinsurgency aided by Sunni tribes who had allied with the Iraqi state. But the outfit reemerged by 2009 in northern Iraq, laying the ground for its current takeover.

The ongoing chaos and civil war in neighboring Syria was a catalytic force: The group, then known as ISIS, was one of a hodgepodge of militant factions battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But it steadily gained ground, holding sway over a stretch of territory in both countries, including the Syrian city of Raqqa, which functions as its de facto capital. Within a space of months this summer, Islamic State fighters steamrolled through northern Iraq, capturing the city of Mosul, while rampaging toward Baghdad, further south, and north toward lands contested by the pesh merga of Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.

All the while, the group consolidated power, formed practical alliances and captured funds and weaponry belonging to the Iraqi state. Its fighters are better equipped and more disciplined than many in the Iraqi army. As they unleashed horrors upon religious minorities caught in their conquests — attacking Christians, Yazidis, Shiites and earning comparisons to the ravages of Genghis Khan — they actually won praise from some living under their rule for good governance. The declaration of a caliphate this summer signaled their delusional world-historic aims. But it sprang from very diligent strategic planning.

"The Islamic State has so far succeeded in doing essentially everything that al-Qaeda had previously done, and done it better, except for carrying out a foreign attack," said Charles Lister, an analyst for the Brookings Institute in Doha, in an interview with PBS Frontline.

It mushroomed in Syria

The Syrian civil war gave the Islamic State a platform to enter the imagination of budding jihadists around the world. The group has a slick Internet presence and has used social media as a vehicle for recruitment and propaganda. It also used old-fashioned tactics of extortion, smuggling and kidnapping to grow its wealth and clout. And as it built up its arsenal and ranks in Syria, it demoralized and thinned out less radical rebel factions also battling Assad, with many fighters defecting to the Islamic State. "They see it’s better," a U.N. observer told journalist Patrick Cockburn. The defectors, says the U.N. official, think, " 'These guys are strong, these guys are winning battles, they were taking territory, they have money, they can train us.' "

The group's rabid, sectarian ideology on display in Syria — which led to the massacres of Christians, Alawites, Ismailis and others who did not conform to their puritanical brand of Sunni Islam — is now being brutally applied in Iraq, which is no stranger to such bloodshed. Their butchering of non-believers and recent reported enslavement of women from religious minorities triggered an exodus of refugees, who have fled mostly to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Islamic State's continued assault on Kurdish positions, which stirred Obama into action, might now prove that for the first time in a long time, the extremists  perhaps bit off more than they could chew.

Iraq's political disarray

Ultimately, the Islamic State exploited a messy political situation in Iraq. Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite whose own sectarian politics have deeply paralyzed the running of the nation and demoralized many of its institutions. Maliki looks to be on his way out, but the damage has been done. In June, reports suggested that the Islamic State was being buoyed by aid from other factions operating in Iraq's Sunni heartlands, including armed groups connected to the Ba'athist regime of the late dictator Saddam Hussein as well as Sunni tribes long aggrieved by Maliki's heavy-handed rule. The Iraqi army stationed in the north, which the U.S. spent billions of dollars training, melted away, surrendering valuable U.S.-supplied military equipment to the militants.

With their superior arms and organization, the jihadists have co-opted Iraq's Sunni insurgency, despite their numbers being far smaller than those of the tribal militias. In a series of interviews with Reuters, Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, a prominent Sunni tribal leader, acknowledged how the fighters under his banner are now collaborating with the Islamic State. Suleiman had fought against al-Qaeda in 2006, but his anger at the government in Baghdad and fear of the Islamic State's capabilities led to a grudging acceptance of the new status quo. "If any place is open, [the Islamic State] will take it over," Suleiman told Reuters. "[The Islamic State] isn't strong compared to the tribes, but they are strategic."

The question now is to what extent U.S. air power can change that calculus.